The Internet of Things could encroach on personal privacy

White House report on IoT describes electrical devices with unique signatures that can tell a lot

A recent White House report on big data wonders aloud about the capability of sensors and smart meters to turn homes into fish tanks, completely transparent to marketers, police -- and criminals.

Smart meters with non-intrusive load monitoring (NILM) technology, which can analyze individual power loads, make it possible to know what you are doing and using in your home.

These systems can "show when you move about your house," said the White House, in its just released report on the privacy implications of big data. The report explores both the benefits and perils created by these new systems, including ubiquitous deployment of sensors in the Internet of Things.

The White House concern about privacy in the home is based, in part, on research by Stephen Wicker, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cornell University and a co-author of studies that have looked at some of the implications of "demand-response systems," or smart meters.

Wicker's work ( download PDF) was cited in the White House's report.

Electrical devices have unique signatures, and if home metering is sensitive enough it can "distinguish the microwave from refrigerator, or even the light bulb in the bathroom from the light bulb in the dining room," said Wicker in an interview.

The information these systems can discover can be useful -- and invasive. It can alert homeowners to failing appliances, as well as provide marketers with the age and make of appliances, information that can also be used to glean the socioeconomic status of a resident.

"The bottom line is that this kind of data -- power consumption data, in particular -- reveals a lot about people's preferences, their behavior, their beliefs, and we need to treat it accordingly; it shouldn't just be up for sale," said Wicker.

The White House recommends that Congress look at these privacy issues. But a lot of the report was written in a gee-wiz, isn't-this-something tone.

The smart meters are intended to help reduce electric costs by shifting some work, such as running a washing machine, to off-peak hours.

After describing how smart metering system might be able to tell you what someone is doing inside their house, the White House report points out that once someone leaves their connected home, "facial recognition technologies can identify you in pictures online and as soon as you step outside. Always-on wearable technologies with voice and video interfaces and the arrival of whole classes of networked devices will only expand information collection still further.

"This sea of ubiquitous sensors, each of which has legitimate uses, make the notion of limiting information collection challenging, if not impossible," said the government report.

Wicker supports the White House effort to examine privacy in these areas, and believes that individuals need more control over the data that flows out the home. That will involve complete disclosure and an opt-out process.

"No one's data should be collected unless they voluntarily say yes," said Wicker.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is

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